BEN- HUR RIDES AGAIN.
Chicago Tribune Feb 22, 1959
Stephen Boyd, co-star with Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur.”
By Hedda Hopper
BOYD, who is this year’s star sensation, is a tall, handsome Irishman whose personality will hit audiences like a clap of thunder. In its beginning his career followed an uphill road with many detours. Today he’s an actor of golden promise. He’s 30, and this age is valuable at a time when most of the greats in the film industry are on the dark side of mid-age. A long term contract at Twentieth Century-Fox now has him with Susan Hayward in “Woman Obsessed,” and when he’s seen as Messala in “Ben-Hur” the bugles will really blare.
A dedication to acting, which began when he was 10, has not brought him complete satisfaction. At times he has hated his obsession for the theater enough to give it up, only to learn he couldn’t survive without it. He told me frankly he blames his concentration on work for the breakup of his marriage after three months.
When I first met Boyd, I thought he would become a great figure in our industry. At that time I said in my column.
“Mark my words, Boyd will be our next matinee idol. He has a wonderful face and a wit to go with it. He made a picture with Brigitte Bardot before coming to Hollywood on his first American visit to make ‘Bravados.'”
More recently I was discussing him with Mel Ferrer. who said, ” This man can be Mr. Motion Picture of 1959-hes got it in the -palm of his hand!’
He had not yet met Susan Hayward when we talked, as initial scenes of “Woman Obsessed, shot at-Big Bear, Cal., were made with him alone. He thinks the role of Ben-Hur, which Charlton Heston played, is one of the most difficult parts anyone ever played. I asked him if he’d ever seen the original “Ben-Hur” with Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman.
“I saw it,” he said, “and when I came out I told them I couldn’t imagine how we could better the chariot race. But before I left Rome, Sam Zimbalist asked me to see the race sequence and I thought it was 100 per cent better than the old one. I don’t know how they did it.”
Stephen Boyd first appeared on our American screens in “The Man Who Never Was,” with Clifton Webb. He played an Irish spy and critics spotted him at once. Darryl Zanuck gave him a seven year deal on the strength of that performance but the studio kept him in England for three years. “During this time there was talk of my coming over,” he told me, “but eventually I had to go in and say, ‘ Get me over there!'” His first sight of Hollywood was in January, 1958, when he took a role in “The Bravados.” ” Island in the Sun,” which he made for Zanuck, was shot in the- West Indies. His role in “The Man Who Never Was” was seen by Willie Wyler, who never forgot it. He asked for Boyd to play Messala in Ben-Hur.
It is the flashy part which will do the trick for Boyd’s career in a big way, but it’s typical of the man that he tried to get out of playing it.
“I told my agents to avoid it. Of course I didn’t know then Wyler was directing,” he said. “I didn’t think epics were good for someone who’s trying to make a name; besides, I didn’t want to be tied down that long.”
Baffling, moody, and volatile-a typical Celt-he veers from humor to fury in the wink of an eye. We were discussing child actors and he said: “I was there one day when they were interviewing boys for ‘Woman Obsessed.’ It’s the story of how a second marriage is affected when there is a child by a first marriage. We needed a boy of 9, capable of a wide gamut of emotion. I listened to the parents getting the kids ready for an interview with the casting director. They’d say, ‘Now don’t forget you’re 9.’ Then the casting man would come and you’d hear him ask, ‘How old are you?’ ‘Nine’ was the answer. ‘When were you born? ‘ A pause, then, ‘I don’t know.’ So he’d say, ‘ How old is your brother?’ And the answer to that was ‘Nine.’ ‘0,’ said the man, ‘then you’re a twin?’ And the baffled kid wailed, ‘I don’t know-!”‘
The flavor of his fury showed when we talked about Brigitte Bardot. He likes her, thinks she’s intelligent and has a grand sense of humor. “And of course she’s a woman. There’s nothing more pleasant for a man than a woman. But that man who has her under contract! If I had anything to say in this business I’d wipe this man up and down every street in the world. He’s a rank amateur, he makes home movies. I have never been so against any man, and the reason I lost so much weight on the picture was because of the nervous tension working with Raoul Levy. Personally, he’s nice but I don’t think he’s a professional”
I asked him why he’d married Mariella di Sarzana when he hardly knew her. Said he, “I honestly don’t know.” Then he added somewhat defensively; “I met her in April. We married in August” I said ” Four months isn’t much-” “I honestly thought this was it,” he told me. “She’s a lovely person, attractive, not very sexy to look at but a wonderful girl. She’s clever, too. You see we really had no honeymoon. We were married Saturday morning in London and had to be in Rome on Sunday so I could start working Monday. I had to be at the studio at 6 a.m. so I could get those curls put in my hair. (This for Messala.) Often it was 9 p.m. when I got home. And I always wanted to be ready for the next day so I worked at home for another two or three hours. It really wasn’t a marriage in that sense.”
I liked his honesty when he said: – “Frankly, I had a hunch the marriage wouldn’t work. But I really went for this girl. After our marriage I went into ‘Ben-Hur,’ with such long hours. And I found- it to come home and be married. I had to work, and I want to work more than anything else, and when she’d come in and start talking I found it annoying so I told her I didn’t want to be disturbed while working.”
Boyd comes from a poor family. His first gesture of success was to buy a home for his parents, who never had owned one. “It’s just outside Belfast,” he said, “and has plenty of acreage. It cost about $5,600. It would cost 10 times that here. My father is 67 and has attained the highest wage he’s ever had,-about $18-a week. He’s brought up eight children. I have four brothers and three sisters.”
He says he hates his screen work: “When I see myself on screen it seems nothing I put into it is there. I see nothing but a skeleton.” He keeps pretty much to himself, “I think there can’t be too much between actors,” he said. “Each one wants to talk about himself.” Yet an actor, Michael Redgrave, did more for his career than anyone. He was working as a doorman at the Odeon Theater in London when the cinema theater across the way was having its Academy awards event and wanted someone to present the stars to Redgrave. Boyd was chosen for the job. Redgrave recognized his quality and put him in the way of getting work.
“His advice and criticism helped me overcome my awkwardness and mistakes,” Boyd said.
His first acting role was at the University Theater; he played a 60 year old man. They let him sweep the theater, help band sets and props, and assist the stage manager. During the Festival of Britain he got to understudy the juvenile lead. “He was too healthy,” Boyd said, “I never got on.” He money to go to London and arrived with 30 shillings. Twenty three went for his first night’s lodging. He worked as a waiter in a Piccadilly restaurant, and once lived on water for a week, but when Lady Luck came she gave with both hands.
But there’s still a slight hitch. “I can honestly say I haven’t earned a cent since January of last year,” he told Me. ‘ I pay 87 per cent taxes to England and Twentieth is taking out withholding tax here. I just avoided paying 4 per cent tax in Italy on top of this. Until I get my place of residence straightened out, my finances will remain in a tangle. After that I hope for peace of mind and a bit of pocket money.”
Hedda Hopper being escorted by Stephen Boyd in Hollywood in 1962.